Excerpted From: Tina Lee, Response to the Symposium: Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-envisioning Child Well-being, 12 Columbia Journal of Race and Law 1 (June 2022) (63 Footnotes) (Full Document)


TinaLeeIt is an honor to be asked to respond to the Columbia Journal of Race and the Law's Symposium, “Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being” and to introduce the Symposium contributions through this Foreword. The Symposium was full of clear and thoughtful analyses of the “child welfare” system, its harms, and the myriad ways it is embedded within and intersects with policing, incarceration, social welfare, education, and colonialism--systems bolstered by racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. Most exciting was how each panel engaged in detailed, constructive thinking about a future where the system of family regulation and policing is abolished, to be replaced by systems of support that truly keep all children healthy and safe while supporting all parents and respecting their autonomy. The camaraderie, energy, and hope were palpable throughout our three days together, and it was truly inspiring to hear not only from academics but from parents and youth who have been affected, attorneys fighting for their clients, and activists who are on the front lines working for “nonreformist reform” with the goal of eventually abolishing the system.

I don't think it is hyperbole to say that the Symposium felt like an historic moment where the presenters put together the pieces of a comprehensive understanding of the status quo and in turn worked towards a clearer roadmap for change. This collective work and discussion helped build bridges between those of us who are working on this issue from different angles and positions, and I hope it will continue to grow a movement for abolition. Kudos to the co-chairs, Jane Spinak and Nancy Polikoff, for bringing together a diverse set of people and intentionally working to ensure that those affected by the system were given a space to share their experiences. Thank you, also, to the editors, Nicolás Quaid Galván, Jacob Elkin, Xyzlo R. Lee, and Chabely Altagracia Jorge, and to Michelle Ellis for organizing the logistics of the Symposium.

This Symposium was organized in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Dorothy Roberts' groundbreaking book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. I first read the book as a graduate student in anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York a few years after its publication. The book provided me with an analysis and body of data that became a touchstone as I started to investigate child welfare by observing the day-to-day practices that make up this profoundly unjust system. At the time I conducted my research, anthropologists were writing about incarceration, policing, and the welfare system (i.e., workfare and “welfare reform”), but nothing had been written in anthropology about how the child welfare system was part of this larger picture.

My research looked at the history of child welfare in New York City and how it emerged as a way to police “dangerous” populations in the mid-nineteenth century (i.e. Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans who were, at the time, considered racially inferior), how the system punished families of color for poverty through child removal, how the courts were or were not a forum for checking the power of the child welfare agency, and how a focus on “compliance” recreated poverty, leaving families more vulnerable. My book, Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City's Child Welfare System, ended with a call to address the roots of family issues by addressing poverty and the lack of supportive services (including health care, mental health care, and drug treatment services), rather than continuing to punish families with child removal. Since then, I have become more engaged with thinking around police and prison abolition, and I have become convinced that the “child removal system” must be a part of the conversation about how to abolish coercive systems to create a more just society. I'm heartened to know that so many others are coming to the same conclusion and taking steps to make it happen.

In what follows, I draw out connections among the panels at the Symposium, and the resulting pieces in this issue, and the themes that emerged. These make up, in my mind, a comprehensive analysis of this system and its ties to other systems which deal with the social problems stemming from structural inequalities through punishment. Along the way, I point to what I see as next steps in expanding this analysis and filling the few gaps that remain. I end by summarizing the concrete steps towards abolition that were identified by participants, steps which are already being taken in the work of activists, attorneys, and scholars: Theme One: Narratives of Irreparable Family Dysfunction; Theme Two: Child Welfare Harms; Theme Three: Support and Punishment are Intertwined; Theme Four: Child Welfare is Not Separate from Other Punishment Systems; and, Theme Five: Abolition, not Reform, is the Way Forward; Missing Pieces: Whiteness and Rural Areas Outside Indian Country

[. . .]

Although all of this seems daunting, I am hopeful that these changes can be accomplished, and I see them as more doable than it might seem at first glance. A few of the presentations and pieces provide glimpses of what another way can look like. For example, Anna Arons in her piece, alongside Caitlyn Garcia and Cynthia Godsoe in theirs, discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a dramatic decrease in reports, the expansion of mutual aid groups, and a redistribution of resources to families (i.e., stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits), all of which were decoupled from punitive systems. Judge Ernestine Gray's work is a similar example of dramatic change. By forcing the child welfare agency in New Orleans to explain and prove why children would face irreparable harm if not removed, and by keeping the harm caused by removal and foster care in mind when making decisions, she was able to shrink the foster care population to twenty children at one point and to dramatically shorten the time that children spent in care. The work of activists around the country also provides many examples of concrete changes that have already happened.

To be sure, this work will be challenging and will face resistance from entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo. As Guggenheim pointed out in his presentation, the “progressive establishment” largely supports much of child welfare. Service providers and social workers who rely on this system for employment will resist; racism and classism will continue to allow many in our society to refuse to sympathize with parents caught up in the system; and the very wealthy and the politicians they currently lobby will vehemently resist universal support systems. Although it will take time, this Symposium was an important step in creating a basis for change and helping those who have been affected by the system to take on even more prominent leadership roles. We must all continue to look to these activists who are already doing the work and find ways to amplify and support their work.

Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Stout.